Malevolent... or Hungry
July 3, 2017 6:36 AM   Subscribe

Humanity has the capability to beam messages to other stars, greeting alien civilizations and introducing ourselves to the universal community. Or possibly alerting them to potential competitors and inviting them to feast on our tender, gooey brains. The New York Times Magazine reports on the debate over whether we should be more careful about what we send into the heavens in "Greetings, E.T. (Please Don't Murder Us)".
posted by Etrigan (36 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 


Aww, no reference to the Twilight Zone episode, "To Serve Man?"

Excellent read, though. Thanks, Etrigan!
posted by Hermione Granger at 7:24 AM on July 3, 2017 [1 favorite]


That reminds me, I forgot about the author's follow-up where he does show some love to The Three Body Problem.
posted by Etrigan at 7:30 AM on July 3, 2017 [5 favorites]


I'm on Team STFU.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 8:28 AM on July 3, 2017 [7 favorites]


There is plenty of woo talk here and there about Alien visitations. When you see huge areas full of skulls like at Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, and then of course, the ruins in Mexico City, all that "supposed sacrifice," maybe it was tribute to hungry alien invaders. The article starts with juicy brains, so that is what got me started today on my quest for even more negative thinking. I just read the Book of Enoch, one of the apocryphal biblical texts, the creature in that book with the mouth full of swords, and the eyes like fire, sounds like a tunnel boring machine, rather than a diety. It had an appetite for a gross of male virgins; besides the appetite for a mountain of each; gold, silver, copper and lead. Sounds like an intergalactic mining party to me. Gordon Cooper the astronaut, in his book Leap of Faith, described alien technology in possession of both the US Government out at Edwards AFB, and in Utah.
posted by Oyéah at 9:38 AM on July 3, 2017


The cautious/be-quiet group seems to have confused communication with transportation and transportation with conquest. There are, as far as we know, fundamental limitations on how fast an alien race can get to us, and it's many thousands of times slower than we can communicate with light signals. It's sort of like saying that the if the native peoples of America had the opportunity in 700 AD to communicate across the ocean with the people living in Europe they shouldn't have done it because Columbus would sail across the ocean in 800 years. It doesn't make any sense. Now maybe you could argue that earlier communication would have spurred Europeans to make their trek across the Atlantic earlier. On the other hand maybe some Lenni-Lenape tribesperson would have exchanged ideas and technology with a scholar from the Islamic caliphate on the Iberian peninsula and totally changed the history of the Americas. Or, at the very least, maybe the native peoples would have been better prepared for eventual invasion by Europe by gathering information.
posted by runcibleshaw at 11:43 AM on July 3, 2017 [2 favorites]


The cautious/be-quiet group seems to have confused communication with transportation and transportation with conquest.

I don't think Stephen Hawking has made that fundamental error.

There are, as far as we know, fundamental limitations on how fast an alien race can get to us, and it's many thousands of times slower than we can communicate with light signals.

You're willing to gamble on "as far as we know" being true. A lot of people aren't, or at least want to be a little more certain.

It's sort of like saying that the if the native peoples of America had the opportunity in 700 AD to communicate across the ocean with the people living in Europe they shouldn't have done it because Columbus would sail across the ocean in 800 years.

Why are you stipulating 700 AD? How is it different from Native peoples in 1490 AD thinking "Hey, we should try to communicate with people to the east -- after all, there are, as far as we know, fundamental limitations on whether they can cross the ocean."?
posted by Etrigan at 12:05 PM on July 3, 2017 [4 favorites]


Timely. I'm just about finished the trilogy by Liu Cixin which starts with "The Three-Body Problem".

I'm also on Team STFU, mainly because I don't think we have a hell of a lot to brag about, as a race... and also, I can't imagine what we'd gain from bringing ourselves to the attention of others so advanced that they could travel here. We'd be like orangutans to them. Their equivalent to Sir David Attenborough would beam home videos of us in our natural habitat, our unique mating rituals, and the results of the most recent vivisections.
posted by Artful Codger at 12:11 PM on July 3, 2017


I don't think Stephen Hawking has made that fundamental error.
Why are you stipulating 700 AD?


You'd think not, but unless aliens have technology that breaks the known laws of physics we'll always be communicating on timescales of decades, while an actually alien invasion will take centuries at the soonest, but more probably millennia. Which is why my America/Europe scenario took place hundreds of years before Columbus, because as far as we know, it will take hundreds of years for aliens to actually get here from anywhere. Now, you may say that these hypothetical aliens have hypothetical warp drives that can bridge the distance in less than a decade. But if we're going to make up unknown technology like that, why would we think they don't have technology that lets them pick up the faint signals we're already broadcasting in a ~100 light-year radius? From my perspective the prospect of communication with an alien intelligence is all gain with little to no risk on the time-scales of human civilization.
posted by runcibleshaw at 12:19 PM on July 3, 2017 [1 favorite]


technology that breaks the known laws of physics

Or, as it's more often called, "technology".

Now, you may say that these hypothetical aliens have hypothetical warp drives that can bridge the distance in less than a decade. But if we're going to make up unknown technology like that, why would we think they don't have technology that lets them pick up the faint signals we're already broadcasting in a ~100 light-year radius?

If they have that, then METI is pointless anyway. That doesn't mean we should wave a proverbial red flag in their faces and say "Hey! Over here!"

From my perspective the prospect of communication with an alien intelligence is all gain with little to no risk on the time-scales of human civilization.

Another perspective is that the "little" risk is existential. The millions of Taino probably didn't see much risk in Columbus's ships coming over the horizon either. A century later, their population was in the hundreds, and five centuries later, they are referred to in the past tense.
posted by Etrigan at 12:32 PM on July 3, 2017 [3 favorites]


You're willing to gamble on "as far as we know" being true.

What choice do we have? We can either base our actions on what we think we understand about the world (knowing that it is bound to be incomplete and sometimes wrong), or else we're just spitballing, and that's how you end up in Roko's basilisk territory. Maybe the aliens are community-minded folks who will blow us up out of pique if we don't send out a neighborly hello. Maybe the only thing keeping us safe is a series of ritual murders or the endless torture of a child. (Both of these theories have just as much foundation as faster-than-light travel, which is to say, they have been described in science fiction.) Once you decide that none of our knowledge of how things work can be trusted, every scenario is equally possible and none is falsifiable, and you're just rolling dice at that point.
posted by enn at 12:52 PM on July 3, 2017 [6 favorites]


that's how you end up in Roko's basilisk territory

Yeah I don't really get what makes this more pressing a concern than that stuff? Actually what I particularly don't get is not so much the idea that intelligent beings might show up and annihilate us but the idea that, at the point that one assumes the existence of a civilization that has the ability to do this, it makes any significant difference whether we're trying to contact them versus just leaking whatever signs we've already leaked.
posted by atoxyl at 1:11 PM on July 3, 2017 [1 favorite]


We don't want them to know the reddit scumhivemind that is earth. USE PROPER FILTERING PEOPLE!
posted by symbioid at 1:27 PM on July 3, 2017 [1 favorite]


We'll make great pets.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 1:36 PM on July 3, 2017 [3 favorites]


If you want to be afraid of creatures eating our brains, it makes more sense to be afraid of the evil dead, who are right here. Human brains might not even be healthy for aliens!
posted by zompist at 2:34 PM on July 3, 2017


I personally find this a purely intellectual discussion rather than a practical one because I think the odds of anything coming of it either way are so miniscule. I have my standard set of complaints about most thinking on ET's (which doesn't impress me) but the article IMO is above average*.

I think the best argument in either direction is that this should be a global decision, not a private enterprise.

it makes any significant difference whether we're trying to contact them versus just leaking whatever signs

This is all premised on the belief that METI makes sense precisely because it makes us easier to be detected.

The metaphor from the article is the difference between a camp of boy scouts signalling their presence to another camp across a lake by splashing Morse code, or by shining a laser pointer at them. Both are theoretically detectable, but the latter is way more likely to get their attention.

The cautious/be-quiet group seems to have confused communication with transportation and transportation with conquest.

The article points out it's quite possible to destroy a planet's life from a distance with minor advances over current technology. If we actually found intelligent life eight light years away (one proposed target) they could obliterate us within my lifetime.

From my perspective the prospect of communication with an alien intelligence is all gain with little to no risk on the time-scales of human civilization.

Hawking & others argue that contact with advanced foreigners has *at best* been immense pain for the less advanced side, up to total annihilation. I get the safety-via-distance intuition you have but the closest analogies we have in real life are not good.

*Even hitting my pet point that I seldom see grappled with: Most people seem to imagine on some level that, Star Trek like, aliens will be us but a little more or less advanced, when most simple models suggest that they'd be ahead of us by millions if not billions of years.
posted by mark k at 2:51 PM on July 3, 2017


The alien invasion started years ago and we just failed to notice because our ideas about what intelligent life looks like are too narrow and anthropomorphic. Martian bugs have been infesting the minds of world industrial and political leaders ever since, in a plot to have us do the work of terraforming earth for them through accelerating global warming. That's what's wrong with Trump.

Probably not a true story, but I've been wanting to write it as a novel for a while now. Probably won't get to it now, so knock yourself out if you want it (just maybe throw me some scraps if you hit a home run with it).
posted by saulgoodman at 2:53 PM on July 3, 2017 [1 favorite]


You'd think not, but unless aliens have technology that breaks the known laws of physics we'll always be communicating on timescales of decades,

Other worlds and their beings might know about different laws of physics that we haven't discovered yet.
posted by gt2 at 3:14 PM on July 3, 2017 [1 favorite]


There is not a lot of historical precedent for humans voluntarily swearing off a new technological capability — or choosing not to make contact with another society — because of some threat that might not arrive for generations. But maybe it’s time that humans learned how to make that kind of choice. This turns out to be one of the surprising gifts of the METI debate, whichever side you happen to take. Thinking hard about what kinds of civilization we might be able to talk to ends up making us think even harder about what kind of civilization we want to be ourselves.

I thought that was the best paragraph of the article.
posted by polymodus at 4:53 PM on July 3, 2017 [4 favorites]


This is all premised on the belief that METI makes sense precisely because it makes us easier to be detected.

To civilisations operating on the laws of physics as we know them. The universes being assumed by the different sides of the argument are fundamentally different. Arguing that active SETI is worthwhile and safe assumes that it's really as hard to find and communicate with extraterrestrial species as everything we know so far suggests that it is. Which indicates that effort is necessary. If the universe works differently to that then, sure, active SETI is pointless, but assuming both that active SETI is required to find/be found by extraterrestrial sentience and that extraterrestrial civilisations are able to act in ways unpredictable by current models of the universe seems inconsistent to me.

It seems to me that the most coherent positions are either that it's safe and necessary to search and signal, or that it's irrelevant whether we do so or not, and that both doing so and not leave us in danger.
posted by howfar at 5:32 PM on July 3, 2017 [1 favorite]


most simple models suggest that they'd be ahead of us by millions if not billions of years

Exactly. And yet no one has taken over this planet in billions of years. For a million-year-old civilization, what does Earth have to offer?

The whole worry is an exercise in projection. Some people are hoping, and some are terrified, that aliens might be just like us.

Essential reading: cstross's essay on why interstellar travel is haaaard. (And if you want to invent new physics so you can stay worried... really, reanimating brains is a far easier problem.)
posted by zompist at 5:33 PM on July 3, 2017


For a million-year-old civilization, what does Earth have to offer?

Indeed. Almost by definition, any civilisation capable of reaching us at speeds greater than light, or otherwise being able to reach us in a manner that makes any significant physical contact feasible will be, at least, Kardeshev type II or greater. It will have access to essentially unlimited energy, which will be accompanied by essentially unlimited terraforming capability and materials technology enabling it to synthesise any substance found on Earth, and many that do not exist. Positing that such a civilisation would act in the same way as humans have in order to exploit and obtain resources is not learning from history, it's assuming that contact with alien civilisations would follow the model of our own history or colonialism on the basis of the most superficial of similarities.
posted by howfar at 6:09 PM on July 3, 2017 [1 favorite]


It seems that the most accurate depiction of any interaction between an alien civilization capable of intergalactic transportation and Earth is the one in the first chapter of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy". Total benign neglect and definition as "Mostly Harmless" unless and until the planet needs to be destroyed to clear the way for a transport route. Also from that book, the idea of this planet as a destination of a "B Ark" for useless individuals is also believable as a way we may have been contacted in the past (and very valuable in understanding current human nature). In fact, that anecdote about the alien civilization that misinterpreted a human transmission and sent a war fleet, only to suffer from an extreme error in scale and have the entire fleet swallowed by a small dog. Yes, Douglas Adams had it all figured out.
posted by oneswellfoop at 6:25 PM on July 3, 2017 [1 favorite]


Y'all are discounting the idea that our hypothetical hostile ETs might be crazy enough to send some kind of relativistic planet-busting projectile our way, even if they know it'll take hundreds of our centuries to reach us. Why would it have to be faster than light?

Or maybe they exist as some kind of intelligent, self-perpetuating pattern of plasma currents deep in the core of a star, and would find our tiny, frigid world so alien and hostile that they would never even consider that any signals coming from here might be attempts at communication.

Who knows? Why not just do our best to be friendly and outgoing, and hope it works out OK?
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:28 PM on July 3, 2017


Positing that such a civilisation would act in the same way as humans have in order to exploit and obtain resources

Some of us posit that any such civilization might see humanity as just smart enough to work out that same essentially unlimited energy source and just dumb enough to think I wonder what happens if I do this-- and realize that we need to be stopped for their own safety.
posted by Etrigan at 6:30 PM on July 3, 2017 [1 favorite]


...and realize that we need to be stopped for their own safety.
Under those circumstances, I would willingly defer to their judgment. Next question.
posted by oneswellfoop at 6:43 PM on July 3, 2017


Human vanity strikes again. Just the idea of an alien race giving a shit about us.
posted by davebush at 7:01 PM on July 3, 2017 [1 favorite]


If we're contemplating the possibility of million-year-old hyper-advanced malevolent alien civilizations, then even listening could be an existential risk, since our extraterrestrial overlords could have memetic weapons beyond our comprehension. Hell, can we really rule out the possibility that actual magic works and that alien wizards could transmit spells at us that we unwittingly cast just by listening to or printing out?
posted by Pyry at 7:25 PM on July 3, 2017 [1 favorite]


At this point, why shouldn't we -- what does the Earth have to lose? What future is there? Life will be full of sorrow and suffering for the poor unfortunates who follow us; we could at least plant a seed that might grow into wonder for someone who would come after.

The option to send METI is like a giant switch in the Off position, with the On position labeled simply: DO A THING. We've flicked it a couple of times and nothing has happened. But we've left it in the Off position for millennia and an equal amount of nothing has happened. There's no way to tell what doing the thing brings upon us, if anything, but the possibility is that something happens. Might be monstrous. Might not. How can we cower away from it, just for the pleasure of clinging to this raft of the Medusa undisturbed?

One of humankind's few delightful aspects is daring, which is little more than an inspired stupidity. If it's binary -- we must tell the universe Yes or No -- let us tell them Yes.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:40 PM on July 3, 2017


I would like to warn any aliens that land here that we will blow them up if they come. We can't even handle people of our own species having different genitalia and/or slightly different skin shades from each other without trying to kill anyone even slightly different from ourselves all the time, we sure as fuck can't handle tentacles.*

*except those who like hentai, huh huh huh.

Plus uh, now is a super super bad time for them to arrive.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:52 PM on July 3, 2017 [1 favorite]


on the list of imminently globally destructive decisions left in the hands of the few and not subject to democratic global decisionmaking, this one ranks fairly low.
posted by wibari at 12:12 AM on July 4, 2017


Oops, forgot the actual link to Stross's essay.
posted by zompist at 2:14 AM on July 4, 2017


Exactly. And yet no one has taken over this planet in billions of years. For a million-year-old civilization, what does Earth have to offer?

The critics are saying that it would be relatively easy for someone to exterminate us.

The comments here are responding it would both hard and pointless to conquer us. Which is an observation but is rather beside the point.
posted by mark k at 9:24 AM on July 4, 2017 [2 favorites]


Three Body Problem gets to the heart of this. That series filled me with existential dread of the heat death of the universe unlike anything else since childhood.
posted by garbhoch at 9:51 AM on July 4, 2017


(I think you meant to link to the novels, garbhoch?)
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 11:54 AM on July 4, 2017


Oops, yes! Thanks, Johnny Wallfower.
posted by garbhoch at 12:41 PM on July 4, 2017


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